Growing Rural Communities Will Need Newcomers
Hard work is a staple in almost any rural community. A hard day’s work might be on the assembly line or in a clinic, at the computer or deep in the belly of a mine. Whatever the job, every working-age person contributing their skills and talents lay the foundation for a growing, thriving community.
As rural communities in Minnesota age, the importance of welcoming newcomers is becoming critical to the growth of local economies. In every occupation, employers are already feeling the pinch of a labor shortage. There simply aren’t enough people, and people with the right skills, to fill open positions.
In a 2017 report titled Immigrants and Minnesota’s Workforce, University of Minnesota Associate Professor Ryan Allen says, “The bottom line is that Minnesota must have more success in attracting more individuals to the state to maintain a robust workforce. Given prevailing trends, it is likely that the vast majority of individuals who move to the state will be immigrants.”
Four years later, that sentiment has only strengthened. A recent report from the Minnesota Chamber Foundation starts off by saying, “The success of Minnesota’s economy, both now and in the future, is intrinsically linked to Minnesota’s immigrant communities.”
Why is this? According to the 2018 American Community Survey, immigrants are far more likely to be of working age – and are slightly more likely to be in the labor force – than the general Minnesota population. Moreover, immigrants fill a crucial workforce gap in many rural industries that struggle to find employees.
“In rural communities, immigrants and refugees, who are often resettled there, do jobs that are essential for the survival of a number of key industries…In the end, immigrants make communities more stable and resilient to the changes plaguing rural communities such as an aging population and out-migration.” (Revival and Opportunity: Immigrants in Rural America, Center for American Progress)
Community Spotlight: St. James
St. James is home to nearly 3,000 people of color, or almost half of the population (Minnesota Compass). Starting more than two decades ago, community leaders came together to “create a strategy for welcoming and including the immigrant population in the area. The coalition initially collected reflections from the U.S.-born population but focused later on immigrants. In response to some of the issues raised during these discussions, St. James leaders formed another group comprised of school and social stakeholders called the Family Services Collaborative, which focused on making services accessible to immigrant families. The Family Services Collaborative worked to provide ESL programs in schools, translations of documents and informational pamphlets into Spanish, and initiatives specifically targeted to support transitory migrant families (Revival and Opportunity: Immigrants in Rural America). After years of building bridges and connections, the work continues. The community has gathered for welcoming talks, taken part in the Rural Equity Learning Community, and shared stories as part of a local immigration-focused book called, “Your Story, My Story, Our Story.” On the city’s website, the community leads their “Why Live in St. James?” page with the frame “A diverse ‘micro’ regional center” that speaks to the celebration and embrace of their local diversity in attraction and recruitment efforts.
Immigrant-Powered, Long–Term Growth
As Minnesota rural communities welcome immigrants into their communities, growing pains – both social and economic – are likely. These happen with any community change. And while cultural benefits, like the introduction of new foods, languages, art, and perspectives, can immediately be seen, research shows that welcoming immigrants into the local workforce has long-term positive economic benefits too.
According to Allen, “in the short run immigration has a negative net fiscal contribution for Minnesota for first generation immigrants, mostly due to the expense associated with education that outpaces tax contributions for this generation. In the long run, when focusing on the fiscal impacts of the children and grandchildren of immigrants (the second and third generations), the same report finds that immigration has a positive net fiscal contribution for Minnesota. In fact, the positive net fiscal contribution of second and third generation immigrants in Minnesota is so large that these contributions result in a substantial positive net fiscal contribution for immigration over three generations.”
If you take an annual look, immigrants’ spending power in Minnesota is $12.4 billion and in 2019 immigrants paid $4.5 billion in taxes, according to recent research. These contributions benefit all Minnesotans.
Community Spotlight: Worthington
Worthington, Minnesota (population 13,105) is home to JBS Pork, a meat processing plant that has attracted immigrant workers and families since the 1980s. In the past three decades, as new families moved to the area, new businesses opened, and struggling businesses saw their bottom lines grow. In a 2019 Star Tribune article Mayor Mike Kuhle wrote, “Immigration has helped to provide badly needed employees for these businesses and the surrounding area. The farming community has benefited from the availability of immigrant workers. Without immigrants moving to Worthington, we would likely be a community in decline.”
To create the kind of communities where immigrants are welcomed as newcomers and seen as community contributors, Hamse Warfa, deputy commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, says that:
- It’s important to raise awareness about the essential contributions of immigrants to our workforce.
- It’s important to ensure that immigrants have opportunities to grow in their careers and develop the skills needed to succeed in the in-demand careers of today and tomorrow.
- It’s important to recognize that without immigrants, Minnesota companies and our overall state economy would suffer.
So how can communities go about creating a welcoming environment? Many rural leaders have long known that the future vitality of their rural Minnesota community will depend on how residents today welcome and engage newcomers. Here are some of the strategies they’ve championed.
Welcoming Strategies for Rural Communities
Creating a welcoming community, one where immigrants want to make a life, takes intention, commitment and long-term partnership. The national nonprofit Welcoming America offers the following strategies for rural communities to begin or build on their welcoming work.
- Start by listening. Both newcomers and longtime residents can feel alienated by change and unwelcome in their community. Understanding the concerns and interests of a diversity of residents and asking what more could be done to make everyone feel like they belong, can be a valuable starting point.
- Create “Do It Together” opportunities. Bring residents together to foster bridging capital and social cohesion through common projects. Welcoming Week can be a great time to host an event in partnership with arts, education, and community partners. It’s an opportunity to bring people together through the arts, sports, volunteering, or myriad other ways that provide a chance for neighbors to find common ground.
- Build a community-wide Welcoming agenda. To date, dozens of communities have created their own Welcoming plans, bringing together different sectors—government, business, community, faith, etc., along with diverse residents—to create a vision and plan for inclusion and equity. Use the Welcoming Standard as a roadmap to help chart your course.
- Institutionalize efforts in local government. As municipalities play a more active role, a growing trend has been the creation of offices or staff positions dedicated to fostering a welcoming environment, with more than 40 offices and many more staff leading this work around the country. Welcoming America’s Welcoming Network is a resource for those looking to establish this infrastructure, or connect with hundreds of peers leading similar work inside and outside of local government.
For more examples of Minnesota communities working to create welcoming environments, read our Building Welcoming Communities series: Grand Rapids, like many Greater Minnesota cities, works toward a welcoming environment and Preeti Yonjon: cultivating inclusion in Alexandria.
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